ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – It was one of the most enduring images of 2002 – a photograph of Daniel Pearl, a gun pointed at his head, just days after he was kidnapped off the streets of Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi.
The January abduction and beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter was the first blow in a year of unprecedented violence against foreigners and Pakistani Christians, and many fear a further backlash if the United States goes ahead with an attack on Iraq.
Religious hard-liners staged loud but peaceful demonstrations Friday, chanting “Down with America,” and “Long Live Saddam Hussein.” Crowds ranged in number from 7,000 in Peshawar, a stronghold of pro-Afghan sentiment, to 400 in Islamabad, the capital.
Retired Gen. Talat Masood, a security analyst, says he expects reaction to an attack on Iraq to be much worse than during the 1991 Gulf War.
“Polarization is much greater and anti-Americanism is much more crystalized,” he said. “The general impression here is that this is part of an attempt to dominate the Muslim world. Iraq may be first, but Iran and then Pakistan may be next.”
Masood said an Iraq war could lead to more violence against foreigners here. “One can’t rule that out,” he said.
Others note that the Gulf War protests were not particularly broad-based, and demonstrations called in 2001 against the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan did not draw large crowds.
Still, while Pakistan has always been rife with sectarian violence and foreigners have been targeted before, the level of attacks in 2002 was unprecedented, and analysts say radicals could become even more emboldened if Iraq is attacked.
“I think that should be a cause of concern for the government,” said Gen. Rashid Quereshi, a spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan’s defining moment – and the main reason for its heightened level of violence – came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Musharraf chose to ditch the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and support the United States.
The military leader ordered his intelligence agencies to help track down al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives, and banned homegrown Islamic radical groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.